A Centennial Farm in Beaver County, PA courtesy of Maria Graziani
Understanding Farmland Preservation is tricky business.
Each state has the ability to create legislation for preserving farmland and many have done this in various forms1. While states such as Massachusetts and Minnesota offer financial assistance to ensure the continuation of agricultural production, Pennsylvania (along with California, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington) all designate and continue to budget for easement programs.
Specifically the PA Department of Agriculture has the Bureau of Farmland Preservation which administers the program funds and allocates them to the counties of Pennsylvania, is the leader in farmland preservation with 5,242 farms and 544,892 acres2 protected through permanent agricultural easement as of January 1, 2018. The Farmland Preservation Program was first passed as Act 43 of 1981 and amended in 1988 by Act (149)3.
You might be wondering where Farmland Preservation funds start and end in Pennsylvania.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania was the first state in the country to sign a cooperative agreement with the federal Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP)4 to receive funding for preserving farms. In addition to the ACEP agreement, Pennsylvania passed a $100 million dollar bond to be used over several years. In addition, in 2002, PA established a flat tax on tobacco sold in the state to help fund the conservation easement purchase program. Between the federal agreement and the flat appropriation, Governor Wolfe secured over $20.5 Million towards Farmland Preservation. In addition, in 2016, an amendment to the PA tax code, made another $5 Million available. Then each participating county allocates funds towards farmland preservation program and the combination of federal, state, local and private (non-government organization) funding establishes the total funding that is used to preserve farmland through the preservation programs5.
Each participating county must appoint an Agricultural Land Preservation Board. These County Boards do the initial ranking review of farm applications, provide the State Board with all the information needed to approve the Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase, then do bi-annual Inspection and Enforcement Procedures as describe in the regulations.
Now that you understand the funding source and regulation behind Farmland Preservation, let’s take a look at what a farmer must do to preserve their land.
A farm’s first step in becoming preserved is enrolling in an Agricultural Security Area (ASA)6, which protects the farm against local ordinances and nuisance lawsuits that would affect normal farming activities7.
Once a farm is a part of an ASA, then the landowner may voluntarily file an application to be included in the County’s Farmland Preservation Program. The application is available from the County Farmland Preservation Administrator, who then ranks all the landowners applications together, using the State’s ranking system, consisting of Land evaluation (Soil Quality), Development Potential, Farmland Potential, and Clustering Potential. The top ranked farm is then sent out for a duel appraisal. If the landowner accepts the easement offer, the farm is further processed and sent to the State Board, which meets six times a year, for easement approval.
If farmland is approved for Easement what happens next?
In short, the program pays farmers the difference between the "fair market value" and the "agricultural value" of their farmland, in exchange for a permanent deed restriction which prevents uses of the property that will have a negative impact on its agricultural viability.
The property owner retains title, can pass the property to heirs, or sell the property, while still maintaining agricultural use of the land. Many farmers use the proceeds from easement sales to reduce debt loads, expand operations, or to help ensure the transition of the farm to the next generation. Farmers may choose to receive the proceeds from easement sales in a lump sum payment, in installments over a period of five years, or on a long-term installment basis, though not all counties have accepted the long-term installments basis.
Is Farmland Preservation making more sense?
The Pennsylvania Agricultural Conservation Easement Purchase Program8 serves an important purpose of slowing the loss of prime farmland to non-agricultural uses. With each year of additional new easement purchases and acreage, Pennsylvania continues to protect quality farmland and the farmer’s ability to farm, so that we are ensured a future food supply for a growing nation.
1Farmland Preservation, National Conference of State Legislatures website
2,7Bureau of Farmland Preservation 2016 Annual Report, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
3 Pennsylvania Land Trust Reimbursement Program, National Conference of State Legislatures website
4Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
5Spending Allocations by year, Bureau of Farmland Preservation, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
6Agricultural Security Area (ASA), Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
8Farmland Preservation, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture
By Maria Graziani, with fact-checking and review by Joseph Petrella.